Top o' the mornin' to you! This is your friendly reminder that today is St. Patrick's Day. A lot of elementary school students will avoid the inevitable pinch for forgetting their green today, since many are on spring break this week.
My childhood breakfast table was usually the site of my first pinch of the day, back in my elementary school days. Unless I searched my pajama wardrobe or underwear drawer for a hint of green among floral prints as I went to bed on March 16, I could usually count on one of my siblings to provide the first pinch of the day as we consumed our bowl of Lucky Charms. (It may have been Frosted Flakes or Sugar Smacks or Apple Jacks cereal, but those don't sound as leprechaun-inspired, do they?)
Today's recipe calls for a "pinch" of a different kind - or, more accurately - a measured amount of baking soda. Irish Bread is one of the hallmarks from the Emerald Isle. It's a quick bread that uses soda, rather than yeast, for leavening.
However, the website www.myrecipes.com says that the Irish bakers weren't the first cooks to use soda to leaven bread. American Indians first used pearl ash—a natural form of soda created from the ashes of wood—to leaven their breads without the presence of yeast. However, it wasn’t until this process was later discovered and replicated by the Irish that it earned a reputation worldwide.
Irish Soda Bread was first created in the late 1830s, when the first iteration of baking soda—or bicarbonate soda—was introduced to the United Kingdom. The first versions were created out of necessity. Irish cooks were having trouble finding quality flour, since Ireland's climate raises a lower-gluten variety of wheat than we're known for here in the heart of Kansas. The soda was added to other basic ingredients, like the “soft” wheat flour, salt, and soured milk.
At the time, many lower-class and farmhouse kitchens lacked ovens, so the bread was cooked in iron pots or on griddles over open hearths. This cooking method resulted in the signature dense texture, hard crust, and slight sourness that's characteristic for soda bread. The unique texture of this bread is the result of a reaction between acid and baking soda that results in the formation of small bubbles of carbon dioxide within the dough. Sour milk was most commonly used in the early days of the bread’s history, thanks to its high acidity levels, but now buttermilk is typically used in its place.
The bread traditionally has a cross cut into the top before baking.
Other fun St. Patrick Day ideas, especially for kids:
- Take 2 refrigerated biscuits per child and tear each in half. Place three of the pieces together to form a shamrock and use the other one to roll into a stem. Sprinkle with green sugar and bake.
- Another easy green treat: Combine equal parts cream cheese and marshmallow cream. Tint green and serve as dip for green apples.
- Gold Cookies (for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!): Take two Ritz crackers. Put peanut butter between them. Dip them in melted butterscotch chips. Place on waxed paper until set up.
- Substitute Lucky Charms for some (or all) of the cereal in your Rice Krispie treats.
Here's hoping you find some St. Patrick's Day "Luck o' the Irish" at the end of your rainbow ... or in your kitchen. (There are some more ideas and links after the Irish Soda Bread recipe.)
I used a recipe from Sally's Baking Addiction for this version of Irish Soda Bread. (Sally's is one of my and Jill's go-to baking blogs.) However, after perusing several other recipes, I made some adjustments. Her recipe said raisins were optional. Another recipe developer used whiskey-soaked raisins or craisins. A couple of them suggested orange zest. (I'm guessing that 1800s-era Irish cooks didn't have access to oranges or orange zest.) Did they have dried fruit? I don't know.
But soaking dried fruit in orange juice and adding orange zest do provide a nice bit of flavor. And, of course, you have to drain the fruit before using it in the bread. However, one recipe used the reserved liquid - whether whiskey or orange juice or a combination - to combine with softened butter for a spread for the bread. I also added that for an extra treat.
Grandma's Irish Soda Bread
Adapted from Sally's Baking Addiction
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
5 tbsp. butter (cold and cubed)
1 cup raisins, currants or craisins (opt.)
2 tsp. orange zest (opt.)
Butter Spread (optional)
1/2 cup room temperature butter
Liquid (whiskey, orange juice or combination) retained after plumping the dried fruit
IF DESIRED: Rehydrate dried fruit of your choice in 1/2 cup Irish whiskey, orange juice or a combination of the two. To do this quickly, you may add the fruit and liquid to a glass measuring cup. Microwave for 2 minutes. Set aside to cool and to rehydrate for an hour or so.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare a baking pan. I used a 9-inch cake pan, lined with parchment paper. Other options are using a seasoned cast iron skillet or a 5-quart Dutch oven without the lid. Another option is to use only a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, though the bread spreads out a little more.
Whisk the buttermilk and egg together. (If you don't have buttermilk available, you can make a substitution by putting 1 tablespoon of vinegar in a glass measuring cup and then adding milk to make 1 3/4 cups. Stir together, and let sit for 5 minutes before adding egg and using.)
Combine flour, sugar, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl. Cut in cold butter with a pastry blender. There's a lot of flour compared to the amount of butter, but keep working to break the butter down into pea-sized crumbs. Stir in orange zest, if desired.
Drain the fruit well, if you have chosen to plump the fruit in advance. Reserve the liquid if you plan to make the butter spread.
Stir fruit into the flour mixture and stir to distribute. Pour in the buttermilk/egg mixture. Gently fold together until the dough it too stiff to stir. Pour crumbly dough onto a lightly-floured work surface. With floured hands, work the dough into a ball as well as you can, then knead for about 30 seconds or until the flour is moistened. If the dough is too sticky, add a little more flour. (You will likely have to do this if you've plumped your fruit in liquid.)
Transfer the dough to the prepared pan. Using a very sharp knife, score an X into the top. Bake for 20 minutes, then put a piece of foil on top to prevent overbrowning. Bake for another 20-25 minutes until the bread is golden brown and center appears cooked through.
Remove from oven and allow bread to cool for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack. Serve warm, at room temperature or toasted. Serve with whipped butter spread, if desired.
Whip softened-to-room-temperature butter with a stand or hand mixer until light and fluffy. Add in about 2 tablespoons of the reserved liquid, whipping together until it's well blended. Add more, if desired. Serve with warm bread. (Because I used craisins, it gave the butter a slight pink tinge since some of the color leached out when the fruit was soaking.)
And, if you're looking for other lucky treats, here are some other St. Patty's Day foods I've shared here in the past:
Good As Gold Snack Mix
Kinley and Brooke helped me make these Mint Chocolate Chip Cookies when they were visiting a couple years ago:
For a main dish with an Irish twist, try Reuben Crescent Bake. (Well, at least, it's got corned beef and cabbage. I don't think it's very Irish.)
For cabbage minus the corned beef, try this slaw recipe:
May your troubles be less and your blessings be more
And nothing but happiness come through your door.